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Gardiner Shows Lots Of Jump In Win

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

It didn’t take long for what likely will be the biggest story in the Leafs’ training camp to assert itself.

About five minutes, as a matter of fact as Dion Phaneuf chose the occasion of his second or third shift of the season to register his first high impact hit, a seek-and-destroy job on Ottawa defenceman Tim Conboy.

Encouraging sign but not the story.

The Sens got the extra penalty and on the power play, Jake Gardiner threaded a pass through for a tap-in goal by Colby Armstrong. That would be the story.

It would be the first of two assists for the smooth-skating 21-year-old one-time Wisconsin Badger and while Gardiner was handed a significant number of power play time, he looked completely at ease in the Leafs 4-2 win.

“Just playing those 10 games with the Marlies last year helped my development as a player. It’s great knowing most of the players coming in and not feeling like you are being thrown to the wolves,” he said.

No fool, Gardiner knows it’s not up to him to handicap the race for an NHL job.

“I just want to play to the best of my ability and hope that it’s enough,” he said.

The Leafs promised a more aggressive defence. Gardiner sometimes looks like the only kid on the pond wearing skates.

“It’s fun to see someone like Gardiner, such a good skater if something goes wrong on his attack and he’s often the first guy on the attack he is the first guy back,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson.

Tyler Bozak with two and Carl Gunnarsson, who has betrayed no signs of last year’s tepid start, earned the other Leafs goal and I think you know where this is going. Can Gardiner repeat what Tomas Kaberle did in 1999 and waltz from rookie through the main camp and right on to the Leafs blueline?

And if he can, where does that leave everybody else?

With Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Luke Schenn, John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson not really having to break a sweat to start the season October 6 against Montreal, you have three contestants, Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek and Gardiner fighting for the remaining spot.

Gardiner is the easiest to park with the Marlies and Komisarek, a veteran who has struggled with health problems has the size and desire to wipe out two supbar seasons.

But here is the quandary facing the Leafs. If Gardiner is ready, and his prodigious talent makes that a definite possibility, do you do him real harm by pulling a job he earned off the table?  And does he thrive in the American Hockey League if his skating and vision allow him to play some chess while most everybody else is getting along with checkers.

These problems, of course, are relatively new. Gardiner, obtained in the deal that sent Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim last season, is the best blue line prospect in years and Leafs executive Cliff Fletcher is one of many inside the organization who feel Jesse Blacker, bound for the Marlies this year, has the skating, size and edge to become an excellent NHL rearguard.

Komisarek should get his shot against Philadelphia Tuesday and as a player with 470 NHL games, experience to figure prominently in the equation. His size and toughness and steadfast personality are real assets.

Besides, you can make the argument that Liles fills the role of the smooth-skating offensively oriented defenceman. If Gardiner lights up the AHL, the Leafs can look at what Liles can find as an unrestricted free agent.

On to the second big question of training camp, the fight for the left wing job on a line with Colby Armstrong and Tyler Bozak.

Now, some would consider a one game audition too small a sample but why quibble?

Nazem Kadri looked substantially better last night than did his two principal rivals, Matt Frattin and Joe Colborne.  He was just hard to miss out there.

“I feel fast, I feel strong,” Kadri said. “I think the confidence of being at training camp twice before is crucial.”

Playing with Armstrong, a veteran who makes the game easier and the hard-skating Bozak makes things easier, Kadri said.

“I feel very comfortable playing with those two guys. It’s like we know where each other is going to be all night.”

The Leafs play Philadelphia at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday. Expect the debut for of Tim Connolly who will likely work between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.

Luke Schenn and James Reimer figure to be in the lineup against the Flyers.

Rookie defenceman Jared Cowen got the two Ottawa goals.

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